14 Free Things To Do In Cape Town
Because the best things in life are free
I have been a travel junkie for a while now and as I spent more and more time being a tourist, the initial excitement of being bombarded with someone trying to sell me something in the developing countries I so love to visit, turned first into a mild annoyance, then into an extreme frustration. The over-commercial and populated recommendations from the travel books and agents felt more like exploitation than value for money. You get to pay premium prices to see crowds of people and be rushed from one attraction to the next ending up needing a holiday to recover from the holiday.
There had to be a better way.
I started looking for alternatives and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the free things on offer are often the best! Where the more touristy attractions are usually overpriced, overbooked and a magnet for gold diggers in search of unsuspecting prey (also called tourists), the free attractions are mostly free from these annoyances. The money seekers seem to avoid you when you do free things as they assume you don’t have the money to buy anything. The people hosting these free events usually small, unique and trying to gain traction in an overpopulated world. They end up being more creative, give more delightful service and products and care about my opinion. Perfect!
So here is my top list of free things to do in Cape Town:
1. Walk the Labyrinth at St George’s Cathedral
Right in the middle of Cape Town’s city center and at the end of a long walkway with a selection of local arts and crafts and other things to sell — including some scrumptious food for the hungry - is an old cathedral with a labyrinth hidden at the back of the cathedral in the cloisters area.
Spend some time contemplating in the quiet solitude of the cathedral while admiring the stained glass windows and architecture before heading out towards the cloisters. Inside you will find a small rose garden neighboring the magnificent Company Gardens and a labyrinth which is only open to the public in the mornings.
Be sure to also pop into the bric-a-brac and second hand bookstore on the property for a selection of interesting and sometimes quite extraordinary books.
2. Visit the Company Gardens
Right next to the St George’s Cathedral is the splendid company gardens where you can stroll around and learn a little bit of the history of South Africa or feed the squirrels.
The company gardens were one of the first establishments in Cape Town supplying the ships of fresh produce. To this day it remains one of the best kept gardens in the city and a feast for the eye with the lush and vast greenery and architecture dating back to the Victorian age.
Feed the squirrels, enjoy the architecture, relax over a cup of coffe, stroll through the variety of different gardens, or visit one of the many museums on the property. On Sundays there is a craft market where less privileged artist are supported and helped to build a business by the organizer of the market. For those looking to make a difference, this is how it’s done. By buying direct from up-and-coming young artists who are investing in their own career.
3. Have a Picnic in Green Point Park
Even more magnificent for the nature lover is the Green Point Park, next to the Stadium between the city center and the promenade.
The park is a playground for families over the weekends on the lush green lawns with plenty of trees for shade. It also offers fun educational sections teaching children about biodiversity.
Amidst the vast lawns there is another labyrinth (yeah!) with rosemary walls (double yeah!) and a coffee shop. There’s even water points for doggies (and humans) to cool down from the harsh African sun.
This lavish patch of green haven in the dense concrete jungle of the city of Cape Town is a welcome rest point after a day of exploring in the city.
4. Enjoy Jogging on the Sea Point promenade
The promenade stretches all the way from Sea Point to the V & A Waterfront, the main shopping emporium for mostly tourists in Cape Town. Enjoy running on the promenade while listening to the waves crashing on one side and appreciating outdoor sculptures and exhibitions on the other.
There is also an outdoor gym free for use to stretch those muscles and build some strength to help balance the cardio from the run. For family’s there are a few spots dedicated to play areas for children making it a suitable stop for all walks of life.
5. Enjoy #firstthursdays
Every first Thursday of the month all the art galleries and other interesting shops and markets stay open until 9pm to allow and invite mostly locals who work to enjoy the cultural aspect of the city they live in.
It’s not only for locals though. It’s a great tourist outing so make sure to pick up your free map and discover the young talent of this international design capital and enjoy a (free) glass of wine at select places.
Some of my favorites on the map include Youngblood, an arts and cultural development program, with a range of exhibitions in this extraordinary building. If you’re not into art, enjoy the architecture or order food and something to drink at the Food Area.
Another favorite and special place to visit is Mungo’s, a working museum where you can watch how high quality clothes, cloths and other fabrics are weaved from organic cotton, bamboo and more in an old weaving machine. Not only is it high quality made to last a lifetime, it’s also earth friendly and lovely to look at and feel.
Mullers Optometrist is another worthy spot to pop into, a functional optometrist and museum with art exhibitions on the second floor of this beautiful piece of architecture.
The good news is that you don’t have to only be here on the first Thursday of the month as the shops and galleries are open year round.
6. Learn to Kitesurf
Cape Town is windy. Very windy. When Chicago was branded as the windy city, Cape Town was probably not discovered yet. I’ve been to both and Cape Town’s wind are by far the, mmmm, windiest wind I’ve come across.
This can ruin your holiday, or you can make lemonade when given lemons. And o, how sweet the lemonade here is!
In Cape Town, surrendering to the wind and making the most of a windy day and cold ocean means surfing, or for the more adventurous, kitesurfing.
The friendly and competent team from SA Kitesurf offers a free introductory lesson every Sunday morning during season covering the basics of what to expect and give you a chance to try out flying a kite on the windy beaches of Cape Town.
Having abseiled, paraglided, skydived, scuba-dived and with a motto of try everything once, kitesurfing is by far the most enticing, most adventurous, most fun value-for-money activity I’ve come across. All you need is a wetsuit and basic gear, an ocean and a bit of wind.
Love it? Join a 5-day course which includes a trip to the beautiful Langebaan on the west coast — South Africa’s version of the Greek Islands — and be forever free to conquer the air and the ocean in an exhilarating ride where the earth meets the sky.
The good news is that they are also based in Oregan and Florida, USA, allowing you to learn at home and continue your adventure abroad.
7. Relax on the white sandy beaches of Table View
If you’re not the adventurous type, Table View, aptly named, is the perfect stretch of beach for a long walk while taking in the best views of Table Mountain, one of the 7 natural wonders of the world.
One of the reasons why I love Cape Town is because you don’t have to choose between the mountain or the beach. This is the city of abundance, offering something of everything. One of the reasons why I love Table View is because it’s one of the few beaches in Cape Town where you can just relax and let your hair down. Compared to the flashy and viby Clifton and Camps Bay, Table View has no pretense and there’s space to breathe.
There are a range of restaurants and bars across the street from the beach, making it the perfect hide-out to rejuvenate and restore for the year ahead.
8. Hike Up Lion’s Head
Lion’s Head, the hill next to Table Mountain looking like the rump of a lion when viewed from a certain angle, is one of the best free things to do in Cape Town.
The hike up is mostly easy and can be done by most, offering a choice of shortest or easiest at one point in the hike. As always, however, I chose challenging over easy and ended up conquering my fear of heights navigating my much too short body up stretches of mountain only supported with chains to keep you from falling.
Enjoy the spectacular view of Cape Town from the top before heading down again.
The only downside is that the only way to get there is with taxi or Uber as it’s not serviced by the MyCiti buses, as most of the tourist attractions in Cape Town. There are also fullmoon hikes to allow you to see the sun set from the top.
9. Touch The Berlin Wall
Hidden in plain sight is a piece of the Berlin Wall, given to Mandela years ago and now housed in public at the end of St George’s Mall, right on the corner before crossing Wale Street to St George’s Cathedral (I’m still wondering why St George seems to be so influential with so many parts named after him).
The one side, assumed to have been on the east side, is filled with colorful graffiti while the opposite side is mostly white and clean, symbolizing the difference between the two sides. Both beautiful in its own way, I do enjoy the more expressive east side more.
10. Photograph the Buzzing Bo-Kaap
Another expressionist area, and my favorite place in Cape Town, is the Bo-Kaap (literally translated to upper Cape and previously known as the Malay Quarter). Read more about the history of the architecture here.
Originally built for artisans and later occupied by liberated slaves, the colorful houses (to me) symbolize freedom and liberation and self-expression. It reminds me of all the communist countries I’ve visited where once government controlled housing are painted in bright colors after breaking free from the domination and control of the authorities. When I roam through the colorful streets I feel strong, free, and alive. I love it.
Pop into the local shops to enjoy the traditional Malay food, usually a pastry with spices and coconut, originating from the spice nation who were the main influencers of this area. Or visit one of the designer shops in upper Wale street and see a good collection of some of the best artifacts that Cape Town has to offer, including products from the 3 Cats Brand produced by Mnandi Textiles as written about in another post, custom jewellery inspired by the insects of Africa and strong and sturdy bags made from recycled boat sails by SeaLife. Not only good for the earth, but beautiful too.
11. Discover Graffiti and Art
Cape Town is filled with treasures in unexpected corners. All you have to do is open your eyes and sometimes look up. There is graffiti art on buildings, outdoor sculptures in numerous places and seasonal outdoor exhibitions, making it impossible not to discover something extraordinary.
Be sure to keep your eyes open while walking down Sea Point Promenade, and do pop by Church Square, a patch of mostly nothingness behind the bustling city center, currently with an exhibition dedicated to the current drought and making people more aware of being more water wise.
A rainbow made of water pipes and sun loungers of all different colors on synthetic lawn creates a welcome oasis with a magnificent sculpture of siamese twins in the background.
However, this made me wonder who stole the water and what the truth behind this shortage really is, as there’s absolutely no logical reason for being in drought.
There has been ample time for government to take preventative action (and by ample I mean years), there is more than enough technology around to resolve the problem, and it’s ironic that the drought is in one of the most abundant water areas of the country, being surrounded by ocean on all sides and home of one of the biggest underground sources of water in Table Mountain. To me, it looks like yet a (sneaky) method to get more taxes and instill more fear. I seriously question the authority’s ability to govern if they’re not even able to provide the most basic resource of all.
12. Join a Meetup
The best way to integrate into the local culture, create an international network or learn something new is to find a Meetup.
There’s literally something for everyone but some of my favorites include joining game nights, listen to tech talks, join fellow entrepreneurs in Lean (Startup) Coffee sessions and one of my best discoveries to date was joining a free kiteboarding lesson on Table View (above in more detail).
It gives more insight into the culture, allows you to connect with like-minded people and learn something new. Often there are free snacks and drinks included as an extra incentive to join, but mostly I enjoy the opportunity to diversify my network, discover new trends and connecting with like-minded people. I’ve made plenty of friends and uncovered loads of insights through meetups and remain a dedicated Meetup-per in all the countries I’ve been.
13. Play a Game at the Box Cafe
Strangely, at the time of writing this article this trendy city homes only one boardgame cafe. Hopefully that will change soon, but for the moment, the Big Box Cafe is the only coffee shop and board game store where you can eat, play and buy board games.
There is a stack of board games to choose from, mostly the more known games and more for the fun seeker than the discerning gamer, in a small setting with space for only small groups or families.
14. Discover the Oldest Grape Vine In The Southern Hemisphere
Originally planted in 1771, this very special vine right in the center of town, still produces wine nearly 250 years later.
It’s housed in the courtyard of the Heritage Square, a co-op with a tasteful selection of art, food, wine, and more.
Simply take the time to grasp the uniqueness and wonder of the vine, or sit down over a cup of coffee, ice cream, wine or join a gin tasting upstairs.
Take the time to walk around the property and soak in the architecture with rough textured walls in carved stone and bricks, original wooden floors and exquisite doors and other finishes.
Not All Good Things Are Free
I simply can’t write about all the extraordinary things in Cape Town without mentioning Grand Daddy.
15. Enjoy an Outdoor Movie
This is one of my most spectacular finds in Cape Town, even though it’s not free for so many reasons.
The architecture and tasteful interior makes this worth the visit in itself, with an old wooden elevator still fully operational.
The rooftop offers one of the better rooftop bar on offer where you can enjoy the sunset under the African sky.
On Monday’s and Wednesdays an outdoor cinema is hosted with prices (at the time of writing December 2017) starting from R120 per ticket.
Too lazy to walk down? No problem, there are old trailers transformed into comfortable rooms complete with on-suite shower and toilet.
Each trailer is decorated in a unique and viby African style, well laid out to maximize the available space to make for a unique yet comfortable night out.
Looking for more comfort? There are a range of spacious, beautifully decorated and comfortable rooms downstairs in one of the best locations in town. There is also a fine dining experience downstairs making it possible to stay an entire weekend without having to leave the premises.
Right in the middle of town you’re only a step away from the variety of art and culture, the beachfront, the mountain and everything else, which makes it one of my favorite places in Cape Town and worth a mention.
Disclaimer. I have no affiliation with any of the places mentioned and receive no kick-back or other form of compensation. I only write about places I find special in a drive to create more discerning travelers willing to explore more and find their own special places.